Hemp was once among Kentucky’s main exports—until it was federally criminalized in the 1930s.
The crop is extremely versatile and can be processed into oils, wax, rope, cloth, paper, fuel and even food products. It’s also a variety of cannabis—albeit one that doesn’t get you high, like another cannabis plant, marijuana.
“So you could smoke this all day long and you are only getting headache, not getting high,” said Sarah Sutherland, the gardener for Locust Grove, the historic Georgian mansion built in 1790.
But hemp presents much more for people to learn than that one fact.
Locust Grove recently joined the state’s hemp program in an effort to educate people about the past—and the possible future—of hemp in Kentucky.
Industrial farmers across the state are growing hemp as part of a statewide effort to make Kentucky a major exporter. Kentucky has a long history with hemp, but until last year federal laws made growing this kind of cannabis plant illegal in the U.S.
Since the state won federal approval to launch the program, the state’s hemp program has gained speed. The program now has 120 participants.
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Locust Grove Executive Director Carol Ely said it’s been decades since hemp was an economic source for the state, but it could be an opportunity to restore this industry to its former glory.
“It had it a real role in Kentucky’s economic past, and it’s interesting to see if it has a role to replace some of the lost family farms by the decline in tobacco growing,” Ely said. “Hemp grows in a lot of the same places that tobacco does.”
Farmers were the biggest advocates of restarting Kentucky’s hemp industry, but politicians also played a major role. State lawmakers—with the support of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer—passed a bill in 2013 creating a hemp program in hopes federal law would change. Federal rules eventually did change with support from Kentucky’s representatives, including Rep. Thomas Massie, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul.
The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill included language allowing states to grow the crop for the first time in decades.
“It’s not that Kentucky is the only place to do this,” said Adam Watson, the director of Kentucky’s industrial hemp program. “It’s the only place that has seen the leadership.”
Watson said no other state is beefing up its hemp production quite like Kentucky.
“Kentucky is now considered to be the leading industrial hemp producer within the nation,” he said.
The state is also becoming a leader in developing faster and easier ways to process hemp, which could mean big business, Watson said. Interest in the industry continues to grow. Watson said the latest incarnation of Kentucky’s program got more than 300 applicants.
Kentucky’s members of Congress—including some powerful Republicans—are also working to make sure no federal roadblocks get in Kentucky’s way.
Earlier this month, an amendment introduced by McConnell was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The amendment ensures that federal funds can’t be used to stop state-run hemp programs. A similar measure made it through the House, as well.
At Locust Grove, Sutherland recently planted seedlings.
“They are about a week old, but they are already up about an inch,” she said as she hunched over a row of tiny plants.
She said in a couple of months the plants should tower at 10 to 12 feet.
“We will probably be harvesting this in September, maybe October—depends on how the weather goes,” Sutherland said. “So, they are very rapid. Hemp has always been a great crop for Kentucky.”